Friday, 13 October 2017

Halo Wars 2 - Review

Developer: 343 Industries/Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

As I explained in my Halo Wars retrospective earlier this year, the most interesting aspect of this series isn’t the games themselves, but rather their ability to work with an input device that’s hardly suited to the demands of a real-time strategy game. It’s also worth noting that there’s been a long gap since the initial Halo Wars release. Eight years is a long time for a sequel, long enough that a lot of your potential player base perhaps never got around to playing the original.

This might explain Halo Wars 2’s attitude of playing it safe. Everything returns pretty much intact from the original. The rock-paper-scissors structure of units still forms the foundation of the game’s combat, with each unit type, be it air, infantry or vehicle, being weak to one type and strong against another.

This makes for a broad brush approach to strategy. The main challenge comes largely from working out what the enemy force is specialized in, and then finding the appropriate counter measure. So, if the enemy is building up tanks, you send in an aerial force. If they’re building up lots of marines and other infantry, some tanks of your own will put a stop to it.

Of course, there are a few additional wrinkles in order to complicate the typical combat encounter. Whilst vehicles are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to aerial units, the Wolverine comes with potent anti-air capabilities, meaning that, even if you invest heavily in one unit type, you always have some counter for an opponent’s counter.

The game’s base-building has also undergone some minor alterations and improvements from the original, whilst still remaining pretty much the same as it was. There’s now two resource types; supplies and power, that must be acquired in order to expand your forces. This presents an interesting tug-of-war for base-building decisions that wasn’t in the original game. Supplies, typically, are used for building forces, whilst power is mostly used for improving said forces and upgrading your base. Too much supply and you’ll end up with an underpowered army that’ll risk being wiped out by a more advanced force, too much power and you’ll not have much of a force at all.

The macro-focus of the game’s general flow culminates with the leaders that each force can select prior to a skirmish or online match. Here again, it’s the decisions that a player makes before the game even starts that have the most impact. Ostensibly, each of the three factions leaders for both forces (there’s a bevy of additional leaders as part of the game’s extensive DLC) focuses on one third of the game’s units. This is especially true of the game’s human forces; pick Capatain Cutter and it’s clear his focus is on infantry, whilst A.I. assistant Isabel is slanted more towards vehicles. Each leader comes with an array of powers, with more potent ones being available to unlock as battles progress and fights breakout and are a mix of cooldown-based abilities and passive bonuses.

It’s here where the Banished, the rag-tag coalition of Brute and Covenant forces, seem to have had a little more love poured into them. Whilst the UNSC’s core leaders all fit into cookie-cutter strategies; take Cutter if you want squads of marines, Isabel if you want tanks and so on, the Banished are far more loosely defined and offer a broader array of tactical applications, making them more interesting.

 Atriox’s focus is on area control, he wants to literally colonise the map as you play, with cheaper forward bonuses in order to produce a stronger economy for late game fights. His underling, Decimus, meanwhile, is happy pounding everything into the dirt at the nearest opportunity. It’s a minor aspect of Halo Wars 2 but it’s moments like this, when its game design creeps out of that nice comfortable shell and tries to experiment, as it does with the Banished, that it becomes a little more interesting and grabs your attention a little more.

Whilst the leaders, powers, build-orders and economies are all important for the game’s multiplayer, and that’s clearly the game’s focus, there is still a story mode buried in here. It plays out like a tutorial mode for the human side, slowly unveiling new units to play with each chapter, and switching back and forth between full-blown engagements which involve defending positions and building up your bases, to quieter more micro-oriented scenarios such as navigating a series of snipers and artillery along a cliff side to take out the enemy.

The game’s story mode isn’t going to win any awards, it’s hamstrung, more so than the multiplayer, by the fact that you can’t really organize individual elements of your forces. Even with the new gamepad shortcuts, which, to be fair to make wielding a pad less cumbersome, this is still a game that’s always making allowances for the hardware it’s being played on.

It explains the focus on pitched battles so much throughout the campaign. Defending fixed locations is still the primary goal for most chapters, as it was in the original, almost transforming some of the levels into a quasi tower defence game as you shuffle your forces to whichever choke point is in most need of support.

The story itself is the same convoluted mush of swishy alien tech, with the fun, gloopy Flood being replaced by no one’s favourite morass of bland Sentinel designs. The game’s plot, what there is of it, is always hamstrung by the fancy cutscenes that bookend each mission. Oh, don’t get me wrong, those cutscenes developed separately by Blur Studio, are gorgeous. However, they force whatever story-telling the game makes a stab at to bend to the whim of the game’s slick post-chapter animations, resulting in a plot that’s not just convoluted but bordering on incomprehensible, not to mention culminating in a frustrating non-ending.

The biggest bugbear here inevitably goes to the way the game’s been released. Whilst the multiplayer is undoubtedly the game’s strongest suit, anyone wanting to try out any of the new leaders is going to have to fork out for the season pass in order to get hold of any of them. Likewise, a series of new story missions are delivered as DLC.

Halo Wars 2 isn’t the worst offender with how it markets its paid expansions, but at this point it does feel like players are only getting half a game unless they shell out for that season pass. It perhaps explains why the game retails for slightly less than other AAA titles, with Microsoft perhaps experimenting with lowering the entry fee in order to pull in more revenue with the DLC pass.

Whilst charging for the additional story content is perhaps understandable, the actual “meat” of the DLC, the new leaders, doesn’t really warrant charging an arm and a leg for what amounts to a slight tactical variation on whatever force you happen to use. When Overwatch can dole out new characters for free, it’s baffling that Halo Wars 2 would let half of its potential player base feel left behind for what amounts to a few additional character types. Halo Wars 2 is too shallow for the additional leaders to dramatically change the way the game is played, but by actively cordoning them off behind a paywall (and advertising them each time you boot up the game) it leaves the impression that part of Microsoft’s intent with the game is exploring new ways to reduce the title’s pre-owned value, by all but forcing invested players to shell out for the game’s season pass. All this does is gut whatever draw the game’s otherwise competitive, multiplayer focus would seem to set out to achieve.

This becomes more apparent with Blitz mode, a horrible aberration that fuses the game’s RTS structure with that of a collectible card game. Any other time this would be casual fun; a throw away mini-game that has players building decks of “cards” (read: units/powers) and battling against other players in an area-control map. Needless to say, it’s an unbalanced mess and reeks of a developer trying to foist what would otherwise be a free-to-play title onto a paid release.

Taken on its own terms Halo Wars 2 is a decent(ish) real-time strategy game. As a way for newcomers to dip their toe into the genre, it does a good job, whilst the Halo brand helps paper over the shallowness of it all. Were it a little more daring, and didn’t nickel-and-dime its playerbase, this could have been something more, but as it stands, it’s safe, predictable, and just about pulls it off.

It has the tactical depth of a paddling pool, but it’s a comfortable paddling pool.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Tekken 7 - Review

Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Arcade, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

As a general rule of thumb, I try and keep up with a series if I’m planning to write a review. I’d argue that to effectively write about video games (or any medium for that matter) having a firm grasp on the evolution of long-running series is important to determining whether or not a new instalment is good, bad or different in some way.

Bar a slight mess around with the Wii U version of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (yes, I’m one of the five people to have that version), my last real experience with Tekken was with the original PS2 release of Tekken 5.

Coming into Tekken 7 the most notable thing for me, despite the ten or so years away from the series, is that not a whole lot has changed. Many fighters, especially 2D ones, tend to shift and morph from instalment, changing significant gameplay elements in order for each title to encourage certain aspects and dis-incentivize others.

The evolution of the core Street Fighter games highlight this. Street Fighter 2 is dramatically different from Street Fighter 3. Similarly, regardless of where your opinion on it falls, Street Fighter V is a direct response to what Street Fighter IV did over its lifetime.

In contrast, Tekken is just Tekken, and if you’ve ever touched the series at some point, it’s something that’s immediately understandable. Everything “feels” the same as it’s always done, characters connect with the same satisfying oomph, complete with wall bounces, splats and juggles. In its core state Tekken 7 is a job well done, which is as it should be, considering it’s one of the few modern fighting games to still be ported from a tweaked, refined and expanded arcade release.

The biggest change is the introduction of Rage Art moves, a sort of super move similar to many 2D fighters. They certainly help adjust the pace of any given match, allowing the defending player an effective catch-up mechanic when they’re lagging behind in health. There’s also a nice bit of technically to them in that, in addition to a super move, each character can spend their rage mode to unleash a powered-up version of one of their regular attacks, typically giving it additional juggling properties to allow further combos.

The character line-up is solid as well, with most of the favourites there. The highlight goes to the guest character this time around. Whilst we may never see Tekken X Street Fighter in the future, we can at least be certain that Bandai Namco nailed the feel of inserting a Street Fighter character into the Tekken universe and made it work. Akuma plays like he should, with ambiguous jumping attacks, that satisfying sweep, and most importantly, those uppercuts and fireballs. The fact that he works so well in this game is a testament to the developers, and whilst I’m not so thrilled with the constant barrage of DLC, (more on that later), it’ll be interesting, from a design standpoint, whether the game can work the same magic when Geese Howard is introduced.

The rest of the cast, like I said, is solid, if playing it somewhat safe. There’s the usual suspects here; the Mishimas, King, Law and Nina for long-time veterans of the series, as well as other standouts such as Steve, Feng and Dragunov. Some of the “new” characters raise a few eyebrows, simply because they’re not as new as they might initially seem. It’s hard to look at Gigas and not think he’s a reworking of Marduk’s moves and playstyle. The same can be said for Josie adopting many of Bruce’s moves from earlier games.

There’s a few noticeable characters missing from the roster. Lei Wulong, Tekken’s very own Jackie Chan, is suspiciously missing from the starting line-up and suggests that maybe Bandai Namco are slow-rolling some of the series’ fan favourites as DLC fodder.

Which brings us to the typical gripe when it comes to most fighting game releases. Tekken 7 is by no means the worst offender when it comes to the array of DLC it already has lined up, but it’s still a sad display. Several characters have already been announced for the game’s first “season” of DLC, which includes SNK’s Geese Howard.

Where this gets frustrating is in Bandai Namco’s decision to cordon off little extras as additional paid content. Tekken Bowl, a fun mini-game added to Tekken Tag Tournament, is now stuck behind a pay-wall and tied to the first set of additional characters. Likewise, Eliza is only available to those who’ve shelled out for a new copy of the game or are willing to stump up extra money to unlock her.

This might, might have been easier to stomach were it not for the fact that, as a port at least, Tekken 7 is a sloppy, lazy affair. Street Fighter V was rightly criticised for a rushed released that left its single player content incredibly thin on the ground, and Tekken 7 has similar problems.

If anything it’s more frustrating here, considering how long the game has been evolving during its arcade run. The arcade mode that’s in the game is shallow for starters, consisting of nothing more than four random fights followed by a showdown with Kazumi, the newest addition to the Mishima clan.

The story mode meanwhile, is downright laughable, not to mention cheap. The mode consists of nothing more than a few basic fights, hastily strapped together with a bored narrator and a ridiculous doomsday plot that sees Heihachi and Kazuya at war with each other. It’s the laziness on Bandai Maco’s part that’s the worst however. The mode is padded out with cut-scenes that are nothing more than repurposed trailers from the game’s launch, not to mention dredging up Tekken 5’s opening cinematic because damn if any more effort was going to be put into this mode.

It means that the focus, for better or worse, is on the game’s multiplayer. Which, to be fair, the game excels at, both in terms of the core gameplay and in its online functionality. Matches are snappy and easy to get into, with a match-making system that is far better than many of its rivals. I got through far more fights in Tekken 7, with much better connections, than I did in Street Fighter V or Injustice 2.

Given the competitive focus, it begs the question why a comprehensive tutorial wasn’t introduced. I’ve mentioned this several times in regard to fighting games, but one of the biggest gateways to getting into the genre is the fact that many of the biggest titles seem unwilling, or simply can’t be bothered, to provide a solid explanation of the fundamentals of the game’s mechanics. The internet goes some way to solving this problem, but doesn’t excuse the fact that the game’s don’t go nearly far enough into explain how they actually work to players that are new to them.

As with many of my fighting game reviews recently, the game itself isn’t in question, and that’s very true of Tekken 7. It plays it safe, very safe in fact, and it’ll be a question of how long the series can go merely incrementally improving on its nearly twenty year formula. That being said, the game is incredibly fun to play, it’s everything surrounding the game that’s the problem.

As a single player experience, Tekken 7 simply isn’t worth your time, especially compared to NetherRealms titles. The reams of DLC that are promised are also annoying, especially when there seems to have been an almost concerted effort to ship this console port out with as little new content as humanly possible, and then to charge for any content that it does add.

That leaves the hardcore Tekken fans as the primary target. Whether that’s enough is down to what you want to get out of it. As it stands, it’s a very solid game trapped under a cheap release and the usual array of penny pinching tactics.

Looks like I’m going to have to dust off my copy of Tekken Tag Tournament if I want to play some Tekken Bowl.